Look! Witches, giants, dwarfs, elves, fearies, unicorns, the enchantments and romance of make-believe live forever in the universe of imagination. Mere suggestion and you picture witches, giants, dwarfs so real that you can draw them as though each towered, glared or crouched in front of you. All is memory in imagination. We know nothing else. We are human. We live in story.
The Storybook House … tell me, is your enchanted house empty. Most are. Most are quiet spirited, though some feature birdsong, leaves in the breeze, a chilling whistle, a curtain twisted by a breathless slow puff. Is your storybook house lit by the moon, chilly in snow, its nose hanging icicles, or do fluffy clouds drift along above, mottling the window-box’s upfacing flowers. Perhaps rusty crinkled leaves blow tumbling past the door while a crooked, naked branch scratches its long bone finger on your window. We each recognize our house in the mind’s pictures. Which was yours?
Some Storybook houses are fairytale houses, some are happily-ever-after houses, some are playhouses, some are hobbit-holes, some are enchanted castles. Sometimes, a Storybook House folds itself into a town’s odd corner, sometimes into your town. I would guess there is a storybook house in your town.
Wonder where it is.
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Storybook House Towns
Chances are, your town’s Storybook House was designed by a painter or poet. Chances are the painter or poet served in Europe through WWI or WWII. Chances are, the painter or poet became a builder, a builder in partnership with a shrewd developer. Chances are, your town’s storybook house is beloved, a source of pride, a curiosity to visitors, an advertisement serviceable to the Chamber of Commerce. If your town does not have a storybook house, I know a painter-poet who can design one, beautifully, inexpensively.
Many towns are famous for their storybook houses, Carmel, Charlevoix, Hollywood, et alibi. Carmel, as you might know, is a natural beauty spot, a presidio of Mission San Carlos Borromeo, a community formed by artists and writers who gathered in tents before settling into the fairytale houses of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Novelist Jack London and poet Robinson Jeffers lived here, Jeffers in an enchanted tower. Here, picture-painter Mike Murphy built a charmed house for his mother next to his makeshift tent (1902). That, the first of his 300 fairytale houses.
At Charlevoix, along the gentle, picturesque shore of Lake Michigan, dreamer Earl Young created his storybook houses (1919-1973) from Ice Age boulders that seemed to be laid by the cord-strong hands of giants. Too, the stone bony walls, the rounding doors, and the undulating roofs of his three-dozen enchanting cottages put one in mind of the bulbous mushrooms found in old faerie stories. Half a continent away, near the Disney studios, architect Ben Sherwood designed charming Storybook houses, the Snow White cottages (1931) where Disney illustrators lived when drawing the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a pretty symmetry … an artist living in a Snow White cottage drew a Snow White cottage for a movie. Disney was lovely, then.
There are, of course, many, many artists who created Storybook houses, remarkably, picture-painter Sam Stoltz’s Plymouthonian houses (1922-1927), Sorrento, Florida, home of Al Capone’s bookkeeper. The houses of art director Harry Oliver (designer of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle), Beverly Hills. The Charlie Chaplin Houses (1923) of architects Arthur and Nina Zwebell, houses that John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Judy Garland, and Rudolph Valentino called, “home”. Et alia, et alibi.
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Storybook House History
The traditional Storybook House is not a Hollywood invention, it is a development of the 18th Century Picturesque Style, the Romantic aesthetic of artists, poets, architects. The style is best illustrated by the French Hameau (hamlet) built to delight Marie Antoinette, a fairytale place where the queen would play dress-up in the costume of a common milkmaid … curious, a real princess who pretended to be a simple maid. Each to her own storybook, I suppose.
The Storybook House familiar to you was first seen in 19th Century faerie story illustrations (Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, et cetera), the half-timber cottages common to Northern Europe, old cottages of the deep forests. Typically, Gothic in character, with steep roofs, leaded windows, wattle and daub, crooked and bent with age, lovingly treated by generations of family, prettied by flower, coppice, fruit, butterfly and bee.
Classive 20th Century storybook houses are the stuff of dreams, fantasies of the artists of a better, more wholesome Age. Once upon a time, artists loved their neighbors, admired heroes, and strengthened civilization; once upon a time, artists made beautiful things rich in tradition, things and places that made we common people happy and good. And then, the Progressives ...
There are many precedents of the Storybook style, those noted above, and one more that should be mentioned before leaving the theme. Neuschwanstein, the 1882 Bavarian castle that delighted artists sensibilities, that inspired imitations in miniature, and that became the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, a final word in Storybook architecture.
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Storybook House Characteristics
Asymmetrical gable upon gable, steep-pitched with roll-over shakes and shingles;
towers and turrets and curves of unknown purpose;
half-timber over river stone, walls most often thick-tooled stucco worn to show structural brick;
earth-toned, highlighted in pinks, yellows, oranges, blues, and reds as though prettied generation after generation;
rooted alike a tree to the ground, like a tree reaching up, like a tree spreading in roots, alike a tree that reaches in delightful variation;
heavy doors and decorative windows often rounded, sometimes out of scale, occasionally leaded or colored, dormered and shuttered, and now and then delighted by flowers in a window-box;
the round-stoned chimney is exposed, in best examples capped with a chimney pot;
flowers in profusion, blossoming ornamentals and shrubbery, a climbing vine, the coppice gate, wrought iron, weathervanes, birdbaths, delightful statuary.
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I’m living out a childhood fantasy. Our house is in a historic district of a small town that I used to read about in storybooks. Patty Duke
Once upon a time there dwelt on the outskirts of a large forest a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children; the boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. The Brothers Grimm
There once was a woman who wanted so very much to have a tiny little child, but she did not know where to find one. So she went to an old witch, and she said: “I have set my heart upon having a tiny little child. Please could you tell me where I can find one?” from Thumbelina, Hans Christian Andersen
What do these children do without storybooks?” Naftali asked. And Reb Zebulun replied: “They have to make do. Storybooks aren’t bread. You can live without them.” “I couldn’t live without them.” Naftali said. Isaac Bashevis Singer
Once there was a Prince who wanted to marry a Princess. Only a real one would do. So he traveled through all the world to find her, and everywhere things went wrong. from The Princess and the Pea, Hans Christian Andersen
Hearing the news, Paganino married the widow, and as they were very well acquainted, they lived very lovingly and happily ever after. from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, 1353 (first instance of the phrase “happily ever after” [1702 English translation])
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Storybook Houses featured image: Storybook Cottage. credit: Littleny Stock.
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